It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this vital debate. She made a powerful speech that painted a harrowing picture of the plight of the Kashmiri people and the human rights crisis that they are facing. I also thank the other contributors to the debate, who made a number of compelling points— not least my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah).
The Labour party’s new foreign policy puts the rule of law, democracy and human rights at the very heart of our global agenda, and we of course apply those principles to Jammu and Kashmir, as we do consistently to every other part of the world. The situation in Kashmir is defined tragically by a long history of political and military conflict. In 1947, the British state was a signatory, as the departing colonial power, to the instrument of accession, which gave Kashmir a high degree of autonomy, while granting India control over Kashmir’s communications, defence and foreign affairs.
Countless attempts have been made to resolve the Kashmir issue through UN resolutions and by other means. Perhaps the most significant was the Simla agreement, which was concluded following the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. The Labour party strongly supports the conclusions of the Simla agreement and agrees that issues involving India, Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir should be negotiated between the parties, and that no state should deploy force or act unilaterally. We also recognise that the UK has a particular responsibility to do all it can to help secure a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
If we fast forward 50 years from Simla, we see that the situation on the ground in Kashmir is bleak. At 72 years, the conflict is the longest unresolved conflict on the agenda of the United Nations. Some accounts claim that as many as 95,000 have been killed in the past 30 years alone. Kashmir is the most militarised place on earth. Moreover, it has become a political football in almost a great game, a great power competition between India, China and Pakistan, all of which have nuclear capability. This is a very dangerous game to be playing.
On 5 August 2019, the Indian Government’s Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill unilaterally revoked article 370 and replaced the autonomous state of Jammu and Kashmir with two new union territories governed directly by New Delhi: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Further to that intervention, Jammu and Kashmir has been in an Indian army-imposed lockdown, with the Indian Government citing security risks and the need to prevent violence. The lockdown, along with a communications blackout and an internet ban, has had a profound and far-reaching impact on every aspect of life in Kashmir, including health services, school closures and media freedom. The Indian Government maintain that their decision to unilaterally revoke article 370, and the ensuing lockdown, is an internal matter, as such actions do not interfere with the boundaries of the territory or the line of control. India also cites security concerns, based on attacks by what New Delhi believes to be Pakistan-backed militant groups. Indeed, we recall with sadness the tragic suicide-bomb attack on 14 February 2019, which targeted Indian soldiers in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, the Labour party recognises that those who are opposed to the revocation of article 370 and the subsequent lockdown are understandably angered by what they see as a unilateral act of aggression on the part of the Indian Government. I assure hon. Members that the Labour party will always speak up vociferously in defence of the human rights of the people of Kashmir. We also recognise the hardship faced by those living in Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir, where the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Elections Act 2020 clearly contravened universal freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
In a letter to the Muslim Council of Britain on 8 May, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made clear that all sides must play their part in ending the conflict, which has gone on for far too long. He said that
“the Labour party will always uphold and respect international law and will always stand up for human rights and for the rule of law.
Our position on Kashmir has not changed, we support and recognise previous UN resolutions on the rights of the Kashmiri people but maintain that if we are to find a lasting settlement, to end this ongoing conflict, that can only be achieved”
“India and Pakistan working together, with the people of Kashmir.”
What can the UK Government do to support the peaceful resolution of this conflict and defend and uphold the human rights of the people of Jammu and Kashmir? Well, let me ask the Minister a few questions. Will he impress on his Indian and Pakistani counterparts the need for a plan to demilitarise the larger Kashmir region, and ask what steps the Indian Government are taking to uphold human rights in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly in the light of the events of 5 August 2019? That conversation must include the rights of political prisoners.
What meetings has the Minister had with human rights organisations about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir? Does the Minister give support to the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir, which seeks to address the human rights situation in Kashmir following the events of 5 August 2019? Does the Minister have any plans to send his own UK delegation to Jammu and Kashmir to assess the human rights situation and report back to our Parliament? Finally, will the UK Government commit to doing all they can to support and work with, wherever helpful and necessary, representatives from India, Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir, including all five regions, to deliver justice, peace and resolution to that terrible conflict. I look forward to the Minister’s response.